A Saudi court issued final verdicts on Monday in the case of slain Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi after his son, who still resides in the kingdom, announced pardons that spared five of the convicted individuals from execution.
While the trial draws to its conclusion in Saudi Arabia, the case continues to cast a shadow over the international standing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose associates have been sanctioned by the US and the UK for their alleged involvement in the brutal killing, which took place inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Riyadh Criminal Court’s final verdicts were announced by Saudi Arabia’s state television, which aired few details about the eight Saudi nationals and did not name them. The court ordered a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for the five. Another individual received a 10-year sentence, and two others were ordered to serve seven years in prison.
A team of 15 Saudi agents had flown to Turkey to meet Khashoggi inside the consulate for his appointment on Oct. 2, 2018 to pick up documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancé, who waited outside . The team included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers, and individuals who worked directly for the crown prince’s office, according to Agnes Callamard, who investigated the killing for the United Nations.
Turkish officials allege Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw inside the consulate. His body has not been found. Turkey apparently had the consulate bugged and shared audio of the killing with the C.I.A., among others.
Western intelligence agencies, as well as the US Congress, have said the crown prince bears ultimate responsibility for the killing and that an operation of this magnitude could not have happened without his knowledge.
The 35-year-old prince denies any knowledge of the operation and has condemned the killing. He continues to have the support of his father, King Salman, and remains popular among Saudi youth at home. He also maintains the support of President Donald Trump, who has defended U.S.-Saudi ties in the face of the international outcry over the slaying.
Saudi Arabia’s trial of the suspects has been widely criticized by rights groups and observers, who note that no senior officials nor anyone suspected of ordering the killing has been found guilty. The independence of the Riyadh Criminal Court has also been questioned.
Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur who investigated Khashoggi’s killing, told The Associated Press in a statement that the crown prince has remained “well protected against any kind of meaningful scrutiny in his country” and the high-level officials who organized the killing have walked free from the start.
“These verdicts cannot be allowed to whitewash what happened,” she said, calling on U.S. intelligence services to publicly release their assessments of the crown prince’s responsibility. “While formal justice in Saudi Arabia cannot be achieved, truth telling can.”
A small number of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi’s family, were allowed to attend the initial trial. Independent media and the public were barred.
Yasin Aktay, a senior member of Turkey’s ruling party and a friend of Khashoggi, criticized the final court rulings, saying those who ordered the killing remain free while several questions concerning the journalist’s death remain unanswered.
He also said there were questions as to whether those convicted in the killing are imprisoned.
“According to what we have heard, those who were convicted are roaming freely and living in luxury,” he said. “The truth of the matter is this case should be tried in Turkey, not in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia has tried 11 people in total, sentencing five to death in December and ordering three others to prison for covering up the crime. The crown prince’s senior advisors at the time of the killing, namely Saud al-Qahtani and intelligence officer Ahmed al-Asiri, were not found guilty.
The trial also concluded the killing was not premeditated. That paved the way for Salah Khashoggi, one of the slain writer’s sons, to months later announce that the family had forgiven the killers, which essentially allowed the five to be pardoned from execution in accordance with Islamic law.
Salah Khashoggi lives in Saudi Arabia and has received financial compensation from the royal court for his father’s killing.
Saudi Arabia initially offered shifting accounts about Khashoggi’s disappearance, including claiming to have surveillance video showing him walking out of the consulate alive. As international pressure mounted because of Turkish leaks, the kingdom eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed by rogue officials in a brawl inside the consulate.
Prior to his killing, Khashoggi had been writing critically of Prince Mohammed in columns for the Washington Post at a time when the young heir to the throne was being widely hailed in the US for pushing through social reforms and curtailing the power of religious conservatives.
Dozens of perceived critics of the prince remain in prison, including women’s rights activists, and face trial on national security charges. Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia for the U.S. just as Prince Mohammed was beginning to detain writers and critics in late 2017.
Other critics of the crown prince have said their security has been threatened following Khashoggi’s killing. In one instance, a former senior intelligence official who now resides in Canada claims in a US lawsuit that Prince Mohammed sent a similar hit squad to track him down and kill him, but that they were stopped by Canadian border guards.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman told US President Donald Trump that the kingdom is eager to achieve a fair and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue, which he said was the main starting point of the kingdom’s proposed Arab Peace Initiative.
The leaders spoke by phone following a historic US-brokered accord last month under which the United Arab Emirates agreed to become the third Arab state to normalise ties with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan, the state news agency reported.
King Salman also told Trump that he appreciated US efforts to support peace and that Saudi Arabia wanted to see a fair and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue based on the Arab peace initiative proposed by the kingdom in 2002, reports The Guardian.
Under the proposal, Arab nations have offered Israel normalised ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and site of its holiest shrines, does not recognise Israel.
However, this month the kingdom said it would allow flights between UAE and Israel, including by Israeli airliners, to use its airspace.
White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has said he hoped another Arab country normalised ties with within months.
No other Arab state has said so far it is considering following the UAE.
King Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Kushner discussed the need for the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume negotiations and reach a lasting peace after Kushner visited the UAE last month.
The UAE-Israel deal was met by overwhelming Palestinian opposition.
A high-ranking American and Israeli delegation took off Monday to Abu Dhabi in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The American delegation includes President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook. Israel is represented by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and director generals of several ministries, who will meet with their Emirati counterparts, reports AP.
“While this is a historic flight, we hope that this’ll start an even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond,” Kushner told reporters before boarding the plane.
Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli delegation, said he was excited about the trip and that the aim was to lay the groundwork for cooperation in various areas like tourism, medicine, technology and trade.
The Israeli flag carrier’s flight marks the implementation of the historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the two nations and solidifies the long-clandestine ties between them that have evolved over years of shared enmity toward Iran.
With the US as matchmaker, Israel and the UAE agreed earlier this month to work toward normalisation, which would make the UAE the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.
But unlike those two nations, Israel has never fought a war against the UAE and hopes to have much-warmer relations.
The El Al flight, numbered LY971 as a gesture to the UAE’s international calling code number, is expected to fly over Saudi Arabian airspace which would mark another historic first for Israel and at least an acquiescence by the kingdom for the UAE's move.
Saudi King Salman, along with other Gulf Arab leaders to varying degrees, maintain boycott of Israel in support of Palestinians obtaining an independent state. Any long-term flights between Israel and the UAE would require Saudi clearance to be profitable.
El Al spokesman Stanley Morais said the 737-900 is equipped with a missile-defense system, a standard feature on these types of planes and a requirement for this flight. After grounding its fleet due to coronavirus, it is the airline’s first flight since July 1.
The plane was decorated with the words for peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English above the pilot’s window. Journalists were handed special face masks decorated with the Israeli and Emirati flags. The seat protectors said “Making History” in all three languages, and Israeli folk music played in the background.
The plane's captain, Tal Becker, said he has not worked for several months and received a call out of the blue asking him to prepare for the flight. He said it took about a week to get up to speed.
The 45-year veteran, who is the senior captain in El Al’s 737 fleet, said he never dreamed of flying to Abu Dhabi, calling it a “very special feeling.”
The Israeli delegation will stay in Abu Dhabi for one night before returning home on El Al flight LY972, a nod to Israel’s international calling code.
Private jets have earlier flown between the two nations as part of covert talks, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways flew cargo freighters to Israel before to deliver coronavirus aid to the Palestinians. But the high-profile flight Monday, eagerly promoted by US officials, looks to place a solid stamp on the surprise Aug 13 White House announcement of Israel and the UAE establishing ties.
Since then, telephone calls were connected, and the UAE’s ruler issued a decree formally ending the country’s decades-long boycott of Israel. Some Israeli firms have already signed deals with Emirati counterparts, but Monday’s visit is expected to usher in a slew of further business cooperation. The official repeal of the boycott looks to open the door to more joint ventures, such as in aviation, banking and finance.
The UAE has touted the deal as a tool to force Israel into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank sought by the Palestinians for their future state. It also may help the Emirates acquire advanced US weapons systems that have been previously unattainable, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, Israel is the only country in the region with the stealth warplanes.
The Palestinians, however, have fiercely opposed the normalisation as peeling away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians have held public protests and burned the UAE flag in anger.
Iran has unveiled two new missiles amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, reported Iran State TV.
State TV said officials unveiled the two new missiles on Thursday — National Defense Industry Day in Iran, reports AP.
They are named after top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed outside Baghdad’s international airport in a U.S. strike in January.
The “Martyr Hajj Qassem” surface-to-surface ballistic missile has a 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) range, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. State TV said the “Martyr Abu Mahdi” naval cruise missile has a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) range.
State TV said the “Martyr Hajj Qassem” missile was not intercepted by a defense system during a test.
Also on Thursday, Iran unveiled a fourth-generation light turbo-fan engine for its advanced drones.
Iran also inaugurated the production line of its domestically produced “Owj” engine for the Iranian-made twin-seat Kowsar fighter jet.
Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program and its nuclear efforts.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement between Iran and six major powers, known in 2018, and tensions between the two countries have escalated since.
Also read: N Korea fires missiles off its east coast, says S Korea
Dubai has again loosened laws governing alcohol sales and possession of liquor as part of the United Arab Emirates efforts to bring itself out of an economic depression worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus outbreak exacerbated the emirate’s woes with mass layoffs thinning the ranks of its foreign workforce and empty homes even amid slight signs of recovery. Experts warn the sheikhdom's crucial real-estate market is on track to hit record lows seen in the 2009 Great Recession.
“It’s been a challenging year and there’s no hiding from that for any business — particularly those in the hospitality industry,” Mike Glen, managing director for the United Arab Emirates and Oman for alcohol distributor Maritime and Mercantile International, told The Associated Press in an emailed statement.
Alcohol sales have long served as a major barometer of the economy of Dubai, a top travel destination in the UAE. The sales also serve as a major tax revenue source for Dubai’s Al Maktoum ruling family.
In Dubai, alcohol sales in general reflect the confidence of buyers in their own finances and in turn, the economy. Pre-pandemic, those sales already showed the trouble Dubai faced amid falling global energy prices and a weakening real estate market. Dubai also postponed its Expo 2020, or world’s fair, to next year, another major blow.
Overall sales of alcohol by volume fell sharply in 2019 to 128.79 million liters, down some 3.5 percent from 133.42 million liters sold the year before, according to statistics from Euromonitor. The 2019 sales are down nearly 9 percent low from 2017, which saw 141.51 million liters sold.
Amid the lockdown, Dubai’s two major alcohol distributors began legal home deliveries of alcohol for the first time in hopes of boosting the sales. Now, the city-state has changed the very system granting permission to residents to legally purchase alcohol.
By law, non-Muslim residents are supposed to carry red plastic cards issued by the Dubai police that permit them to purchase, transport and consume beer, wine and liquor. Otherwise, they can face fines and arrest — even though the sheikhdom's vast network of bars, nightclubs and lounges never ask to see the permit.
Those red cards now have been replaced with a black card and a simplified application process only requiring an Emirati national ID card. An application no longer requires an employer’s permission. Purchase restrictions based on salaries also have been eased.
The new card system comes as Dubai also now allows tourists and visitors to buy alcohol from distributors simply by using their passports, closing a loophole that made visiting imbibers unable to get a permit subject to arrest for possessing alcohol.
Tough time ahead for real-estate
The UAE as a whole still faces the challenge of the coronavirus — with some 64,000 confirmed cases and 360 deaths. But Dubai has been aggressively advertising itself as reopened to tourism and now appears set to host Indian Premier League cricket, beginning in September.
There have been signs of a tentative and slight recovery starting to take hold. In July, Dubai's non-oil sector saw its first improvement in five months, according to a monthly survey by IHS Markit and Emirates NBD bank. But that appeared driven by deep cuts in price discounts, particularly in travel and tourism, the report said.
“The recovery in activity has not been sufficient to prevent firms continuing to lay off workers as they seek to reduce costs,” wrote Khatija Haque, the head of research and chief economist at Emirates NBD.
Those layoffs struck Emirates, the flagship of Dubai's state investment firm, particularly hard with thousands of employees fired. That's not counting all the other businesses large and small through the city similarly hurt by the virus.
Dubai's biggest private real estate company, DAMAC, which operates President Donald Trump's eponymous golf club in the UAE, just reported a net loss of $105 million for the first half of 2020. The company's chairman, Hussain Sajwani, blamed the pandemic.
“Resulting travel restrictions impacted the economy and the real estate sector, and we will see a difficult market for the coming 18 to 24 months,” Sajwani said.
Meanwhile, the mass layoffs have seen a noticeable number of for-rent and sales signs in front of homes and apartments across the city. The Dubai firm Property Monitor said in a report this week that real estate prices likely will set new record lows by the end of the third quarter of this year.
Rental listings have risen by 11 percent in Dubai as over 45,000 new residential units have entered the already soft market, according to REIDIN Data and Analytics, which tracks the market. Another 120,000 units are expected to come into the market in the next two years, further pushing down prices, REIDIN said.
Both sales and rental prices have dropped about a third since a market high in 2014, when Dubai announced it would be hosting the Expo.
The “current pandemic, coupled with oversupply in the market and reduced occupancy levels, caused and increase in the rate of decline of prices for both apartment and villas especially in the second quarter,” said Ozan Demir, the director of operations and research at REIDIN.